Article By: David Singer
It's a shame that the St. Emilion Grand Cru Classe Classification was suspended this past April. It was challenged, as I understand it, because of a problem with the people administrating it, not the classification itself. And not so surprising, it was the Chateaux that were demoted that were responsible for said challenge. This week I will drink a toast to the 2OO6 Classe in remembrance. Classifications are perhaps not always a good thing, but if you were to use one, I think the St. Emilion is the one to use as a benchmark. Why? If the judges are fair, which was the subject of the challenge, then the classification encourages excellence and calls out mediocrity for what it is. And that's exactly how it should be. The Classification is reviewed every 1O years, the wine must come from the estate only, and the wine must be considered St. Emilion Grand Cru AOC quality seven times out of ten vintages. So it reflects professionally-assessed quality within the past decade. Chateaux have been promoted or demoted accordingly every ten years and they have the option when they achieve the Grand Cru appellation if they want to apply for the Classe Classification. And not only must the wine be good, it must be consistently so. These are but only a few of the standards that are required to be a part of the St. Emilion Classification.
In contrast, its better-known cousin, the 1855 classification, was drawn up mostly by merchants, with the Crus defined by how much the market paid for it. With the exception of Mouton-Rothschild in 1973, it has not been modified since the World Fair. As a result, you have fifth growths that perform on par with third or even second growth level wines, and there is a third of the growth which simply no longer exists. The classification, with the exception of the 1st Growths, is therefore outdated to say the least. And yet this is the most famous classification in the history of wine.
Around the world, classifications that go beyond the level of appellation typically classify by vineyard. But in some ways, I think applying the concept of classifying by producer within an appellation instead of by the vineyard would be interesting in some parts of the world. The appellation and vineyard certainly represent the raw potential of what the wine can be, but the producer who makes it is definitely the final deciding factor in the end result and how good the wine will be. I've tasted a Le Montrachet from a certain negociant, that I won't name, that wasn't worthy enough to clean my floor. There is something inherently wrong with having a grand cru and a producer that consistently makes garbage with it, yet gets the benefit of the grand cru "brand".
It would be difficult to apply a St. Emilion classification to an area like Burgundy or even Germany, where it has been defined by vineyard terroir, but for somewhere else that is a prestige appellation like Ribera del Duero, the Napa Valley or even Barossa, there would be merit to having a similar classification in these areas. By having a unifying and unbiased voice from the area in question to solidify levels of quality instead of only that year's score out of 1OO from a wine reviewer, you can better-establish standards of quality to paint a more complete picture of the whole appellation. And if quality is assessed primarily on a year-to-year basis, as in the popular press, reputations can benefit by one outstanding review despite fair reviews in any other year. Emerging areas that have established quality and even further potential but no classification beyond appellation would also benefit from a form of classification, including Chile's Central Valley, Argentina's Mendoza and even Washington State.
Some would argue that classifications are negative because they become the dictator of taste. I would disagree by looking again at the 1855 classification. There is a strong market, for example, for the "super 2nds" and Lynch-Bages, a 5th Growth that outperforms quite a few 3rd Growths in quality and market demand. Thus the classification is informative, but at present, the majority of influence on popular taste comes from today's wine writers. This could be the topic of another article entirely. The opinions of these experienced and well-learned professionals should be significant in the world of wine, though perhaps not the only voice.
But getting back on topic, one might point out that some appellations that are mostly in Europe already require wineries to submit to tasting panels to maintain their appellation status. However, these are to maintain minimum standards, not to inspire or to achieve greatness. And at the highest levels of appellations, isn't greatness the aspiration? I'm sorry to see the St. Emilion classification disappear for the time being, and hope to see it, and something like it, emerge elsewhere.